What Are The Reasons For NFL Ratings Declines? Take Your Pick

A number of commentators have weighed in over the last few weeks with their opinions on why ratings for the NFL on TV have fallen by double-digit percentages this season.

A few weeks ago, a 15% dropoff was reported. More recently, the decline was reported as 11% so far this fall. Whatever it is, or whatever it turns out to be by the time the season ends, the National Football League and its TV partners are not accustomed to double-digit audience declines.

Football was supposed to be the great constant of TV. Viewers of scripted prime-time shows going elsewhere lately? Don’t worry, they’ll come back for football. They always do. Or maybe not.

So what’s the problem? The commentators have pointed to a variety of factors – all of them valid and likely contributing, by degrees, to this viewership shortfall.



In no particular order, they include the generalization that the games haven’t been that great this season, or the match-ups that attractive (particularly in the prime-time games where the ratings are most valuable).

Others say there are no real superstars in the league these days who are (a) likable (i.e., charismatic) and/or (b) so electrifying in their on-field performances that you feel you just have to watch them. Speaking of superstars, others point to the Tom Brady “deflate-gate” cheating scandal as the kind of thing that breeds cynicism (if not contempt) among football fans.

The rise of fantasy football gets mentioned too. According to multiple commentators, fantasy football is overtaking the real thing in popularity. Who needs actual football when you can call the shots in your own football fantasy world?

Still others say the advent of prime-time games on Thursday nights is having an over-saturation effect. What’s next? Pro football on Wednesday nights? How about Tuesday?

These commentators note that football seems to be at its strongest when it is confined mostly to weekends, particularly on Sunday. And it’s true: Watching football on Sunday afternoons is an American tradition. Why dilute it with games on other days? 

I have at least two pet peeves of my own about the NFL. One has to do with uniforms. While this might seem petty at first glance, the uniforms that football teams wear are a major element in the overall visual package that the league and the TV networks build for their game telecasts.

This season, I have seen various teams decked out in monochromatic uniforms that have their players wearing bright Day-Glo colors from head to toe. These uniforms make these macho football players look as if they’re wearing leotards. They look ridiculous. 

Speaking of ridiculous, the NFL has gone loopy in its insistence that its teams don “throwback” uniforms for a game or two every season. This is meant to drive sales at the NFL store. Earlier this season, I saw a Pittsburgh Steelers game where the team wore uniforms of black and yellow stripes that had them looking like bumblebees. It was an embarrassment. 

Another beef I have are the games the NFL insists on playing in London. These games serve no one -- not the NFL fans, not the TV audiences, not the teams and players. Last month, a New York Giants game in London was seen at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. What is this? Tennis?

NFL games do not belong on TV on Sunday morning. Moreover, this scheme does not appear to be growing the popularity of American football in the U.K. I hear the papers and other sports media there don’t even report on these games. Why? Because they’re not soccer. Duh.

And then there is the tarnished image of the NFL players. The assaults on wives and girlfriends are a concern, of course, but at least you can say reliably that this group does not comprise the majority of NFL players.

But if there is a visual on TV that will turn off American football fans in droves, it’s the sight of wealthy, spoiled athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and other players disrespecting the national anthem. What makes this situation worse is the NFL’s seeming refusal to correct this behavior, as if the league is afraid it will be pilloried in social media if it moves to prohibit such sideline protests.

From Day-Glo uniforms to millionaire athletes acting as if they are victims of persecution, the NFL today is a morass of poor judgments and lax discipline. And it’s driving viewers away from the only kind of programming the networks thought they could still count on.

11 comments about "What Are The Reasons For NFL Ratings Declines? Take Your Pick ".
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  1. charles bachrach from BCCLTD, November 1, 2016 at 1:47 p.m.

    It's simple.  It's NOT about the viewing public, but about the owners, players being over paid and their "puppet" Goodell.
    The bottom line comes first. 

  2. Michael Pursel from Pursel Advertising, November 1, 2016 at 1:56 p.m.

    The NFL has been drinking the koolaid of PC.  They allow players to protest what some feel is the American way by not standing for the National Anthem but will not allow teams to show support for law enforcement.  That is a real turnoff and I've heard fans saying unless it's their team playing they are turning it off.  I'm included in that lot.  Too many great college games being played, that the NFL actually looks like B grade games.  Too Many Penalties.  Look at how Cam Newton whines about being hit when he is A RUNNING BACK!
    And agreed, uniforms that look like prision garb?  (Steelers).  They are silly.  All so we can sell a few more jersey's to the fans.  Not me.

    Get back to playing football.  Leave the politics to the idiots.  If players want to become involved and have their voice heard, then do it OFF the field.  Keep this up NFL.  You'll see us moving to more college games.  (ESPN is losing viewers too.  Thank you Mr. Smith) OR BASEBALL.  The world series is rocking it.  And notice the positive patriotic images at Baseball Parks?   Go MLB.

  3. Brian Kelly from brian brands, November 1, 2016 at 2:16 p.m.

    the games are stretched out by too many time outs: replays, challenges and fingerpointing.  Plus "great hits" are now squirm worthy moments when we look to former players limping along the sideline.

    the game is now over regulated and the money is out of control

    unexpected outcomes from good intentions

  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, November 1, 2016 at 6:46 p.m.

    Why no mention of last week's Seton Hall poll that indicated the number-one reason was the kneeling? Maybe some folks would prefer to make unsupported speculation and just ignore the one piece of research based on a random sample of viewers. It could be a flawed poll but it's better than guessing.

  5. Chuck Lantz from, network replied, November 1, 2016 at 6:56 p.m.

    "And notice the positive patriotic images at Baseball Parks?"

    For those who still need reminding; ... one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable forms of patriotism is dissent, and the defense of it. How anyone could have gotten through even the most basic instruction in American history and missed that fact is mind-boggling.

    That NFL quarterback's absolute right to take a knee was first guaranteed by men who, while also guaranteeing their own execution, wrote and signed another important act of dissent.

    If you belittle the more recent act, you insult the original act.

  6. Chuck Lantz from, network replied, November 1, 2016 at 7:07 p.m.

    It could be a flawed poll? Now, there's an understatement. What questions were asked? Can you define the "random sample"? How was the poll conducted? How do the numbers before and after the first kneeling incident compare?

    Aside from all that, I would think that even if the drop in viewership was 100% due to the kneeling, does anyone really care about people dumb enough to not watch other games, simply because one or two players on a single team did something that offended them?

    Unless your business is related to selling bad beer or barbecue sauce, who cares what those oafs watch?

  7. John Kelly from NetBase, November 2, 2016 at 11 a.m.

    Great topic but I think you're missing several key factors.  First off, I'm in agreement about over-saturation.  Thursday night football is ridiculous.  The matchups have been terrible and the games unwatchable.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Let the anticipation build between Monday night and the following Sunday.  Second, while fantasy football has been good for overall interest in the NFL, it's not necessarily good for the ratings associated with individual games.  As someone that doesn't really have a "home team" that I'm passionate about, I find myself simply watching the RedZone Channel every Sunday.  It allows me to see the best moments in every game and follow ALL of my fantasy players at the same time.  I never watch an individual game on Sunday anymore.  Next, there has been a lot of bad press about the NFL from cheating scandals to domestic violence to DUIs/drug offenses to concussions (including retired players killing themselves over brain injuries)...and on and on.  As a result of this, the game has changed to protect the players and it sometimes feels like a modified flag football game.  Nobody knows what's a penalty and what's not a penalty.  It seems like there is a flag on every play and the excitement has been sucked out.  The NFL has real problems and it needs new leadership to solve them.

  8. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct, November 2, 2016 at 4:50 p.m.

    I am very skeptical about the kneeling having an impact. Interest in games far outweighs dismay over kneeling, from what I've seen.

    For years we've been told how important an advantage "Made in America" is...except after years of working with products proudly made in America, I don't find it offers a marketing advantage. It's a very good thing. But isn't significant to product sales with few exceptions.

    Makes me quire skeptical when I hear national pride excuses for mass market behavior.

  9. Tim Marshall from Rich Relevance, November 3, 2016 at 3:46 p.m.

    I agree with a number of the issues raised but there are a few that dont identify the decline this year: 1 - Uniforms liek the ones the Steelers wore are donned every year for the last half-dozen or more years.  2 - You say that football doesnt belong on Sundat mornings, but what do you think the west coast experiences EVERY Sunday for as long as 1pm EST games have been played?  3 - Fantasy football may be huge but it doesnt negatively impact the NFL's popularity, maybe even the opposite.
    On the other side, I am curious if the ratings are impacted by the rise in the Red Zone channels.  Are viewers being counted differently if they dont watch their local game but watch RZ instead?  If so, his could skew the viewership numbers greatly.

  10. Darrin Stephens from McMann & Tate, November 4, 2016 at 10:08 a.m.

    Bumblebee uniforms, fantasy play, bad player behavior, Sunday morning games, etc. have been going on for years and the ratings were fine. Nothing explains why the sharp, sudden drop this year. Except maybe the batshit crazy election, but if that's cauing a distraction, why are college football ratings mostly flat or up?

  11. Judy Franks from The Marketing Democracy, November 7, 2016 at 8:55 a.m.

    Over-saturation?  I can watch baseball every day of the week and I am happy to do so!  And, if the World Series ratings are any indication, our desire to watch "live" sports is clearly alive and well.  Perhaps the NFL should take a good hard look at its product.  In "Media: From Chaos to Clarity" I wrote that Content is the fuel that drives engagement.  Bad product? No audience. It's that simple.  Without turning this into a political debate: any sport that begins its broadcast with it's cast (if you will, the players are actors in a drama that unfolds onscreen) disrespecting what many in the audiencce hold sacred, why tune-in?  Especially when you can watch baseball!  I may even boycott the Super Bowl this year.  There are many great venues to view/discuss the advertising without having to watch the actual game thanks to our great media world that we live in.

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